France mobilises police to regain control of New Caledonia airport road


  • World
  • Sunday, 19 May 2024

A car is seen lit on fire, amid protests against plans to allow more people to take part in local elections in the French-ruled territory, which indigenous Kanak protesters reject, in Noumea, New Caledonia May 18, 2024 in this screengrab from video obtained by Reuters/via REUTERS

PARIS (Reuters) -French police trying to restore order in the island territory of New Caledonia after days of deadly unrest have cleared dozens of barricades that had been blocking the main road linking the airport to the capital, Noumea, a senior official said on Sunday.

Around 60 barricades that protesters had put up along the 60 km (37-mile) road have been dismantled but the road is not yet open as debris needs to be cleared, which will take several days, the territory's high commissioner, Louis Le Franc, told reporters.

The Tontouta airport is closed because of the unrest on the French-ruled South Pacific territory.

Protests erupted last week, sparked by anger among indigenous Kanak people over a constitutional amendment that will change who is allowed to participate in elections, which local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

Six people have been killed and the unrest has left a trail of burnt businesses, torched cars, looted shops, and road barricades, cutting off access to medicine and food.

Three of those killed were indigenous Kanak and two were police officers. A sixth person was killed and two seriously injured on Saturday during a gun battle between two groups at a roadblock in Kaala-Gomen, French police said, without identifying the groups.

More than 600 police were mobilised to clear the barricades on the airport road, including some 100 gendarmes who are part of a special, heavily armed unit, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on X late on Saturday.

"With the forces that I have at my disposition we will be able to re-establish Republican order," said Le Franc, the high commissioner.

He said in a statement that the situation was calmer on Saturday night compared to previous nights, but added that there had been two fires and looting, and that 230 rioters had been arrested.

Dominique Fochi, secretary-general of the leading independence movement in the territory, urged calm but said the government must suspend the constitutional change.

"We need strong actions to calm the situation, the government needs to stop putting oil on the fire," he told Reuters.

The measure was approved by lawmakers in Paris and would allow French people who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years to vote in provincial elections.

President Emanuel Macron has said he will delay signing it into law but that a new agreement between representatives of the territory's population must be reached before the end of June.

(Reporting by Layli ForoudiEditing by Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)

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